I had two days off that I needed to use up by the end of the January 2022, before I lost out on them. I wasn’t originally going to use them – everything is in lockdown. Coldwater diving isn’t really my thing (yet? I made friends with a coldwater instructor and I have yet to take him up on his invitations) and we don’t have mountains out here in Ontario for hiking. Days for doing nothing are great and I do like my stay-in-bed-all-day days but I wasn’t feeling it. I was so ready to lose those days off. I didn’t care. If there’s nothing to do, I’d rather work.
Then I found out that Quebec has mountains.
I booked those days off so fast.
I’m definitely a lot better equipped than last year’s trip.
I had invested in a good pair of hiking boots. I forgot the model name and I think it’s been discontinued but the brand is Ecco. Before I purchased it, I read a whole bunch of reviews and read up on materials. Gore-tex is apparently like hardcore moisture-wicking and keeps you dry as it’s waterproof. I thoroughly searched online, went to several stores, read hundreds of reviews… it was not an easy task. I can’t find the review that prompted me to choose this but it was a frustrated mountaineer who gave it 2 out of 5 stars. She went off about how she has used it for several years, constantly climbing mountains with rugged terrains in North America and Europe but it gave in at 35km in extreme weather (-25°C near the summit) when she went to her third mountain in Nepal under conditions mildly similar to some places I would trek.
But my thought was, it only caved in Nepal in that weather after other numerous mountains?
I’m thinking she was probably just pissed at the inconvenience and frustration of having your gear fail on you in those crazy situations. I don’t blame her; I know what it’s like to have shit go sideways when you’re out there, you’re exhausted and you’re nowhere near comfort and warmth. Those are times when I ask myself why I’m doing this in the first place… but it’s Gore-tex, not some enchanted, magical crystal from Krypton.
I get a lot of remarks on choosing to hike more during the winter. I get it: what kind of moron would go out and explore nature during the season of staying in and having hot chocolate by the fireplace?
It’s understandable – our species as modern humans are about 200,000 years old, and we migrated to cold places only about 45,000 years ago. What were they thinking? Fracking idiots… or maybe they were like me when I first started hiking in the cold, “I have this, this, this, and this. That’s good. Let’s roll.” Then I learned along the way and adapted, as I still do.
Don’t get me wrong: I like warm weather hiking too especially during the fall but the snow tends to insulate the noise. The snow also adds more visual texture which makes it even more appealing to me. I’m not a big fan of summer hiking though; there are bugs, bears aren’t in hibernation, and humans tend to be more confident in attacking you. People I come across are mostly nice but it’s not just forest animals we have to look out for especially when you’re alone which is why I brought bear mace for wildlife and pepper spray for assholes.
I got a hunter’s knife as well and a strong flashlight. I learned my lesson from last year when my brother and I inadvertently ended up night hiking because we got lost. Sometimes we go through emotionally/mentally jarring experiences in life and when we get out of it, we’re a bit different. In time, in the accumulation of these things, sometimes we turn out to be a different person entirely. I hope for your sake that you’re not the same person because otherwise it just means that you didn’t learn and grow from it.
Don’t let your suffering go to waste. Let yourself evolve.
But do you remember that feeling of safety and comfort as a child? When you were cradled in your bed feeling like everything will be OK? As an adult choosing to explore these elements, there are obviously safety measures we need to take… but all adulting aside, when I’m out there in the middle of the thick snow and woods, I’m brought back to those moments. I don’t know why or how but sometimes it just feels like one big makeshift, natural pillow fort. And the tricky trails remind me of physical obstacles when I would play fight with my cousin and friends.
I often stop and pause to relish these moments when I’m out there but unlike hiking in warm weather, that pause is limited.
Winter hiking is great but you have to keep moving.
Montreal & Cowansville, QC (arrival night)
I arrived at my AirBnB late on Friday night. I could’ve checked in around sunset if I wanted to but I popped by Montreal to visit a friend. After which, I headed right to my lodging in Cowansville, QC.
It was a cute, quaint town. I didn’t really have time to explore so I don’t have any media there. Everyone I came across spoke French to me, by default so I had to keep saying “I don’t speak French.” I only really know Oui, Bonjour/Bonsoir, Merci and C’est chaud!
I unpacked my things and called it a night. I didn’t sleep well though. I was, in Tagalog, namamahay. It’s one of those words that you can technically translate but it’s not quite right (“living”). The nuance is not there but it essentially means something along the lines of adjusting to one’s new environment so you’re having trouble operating at your usual pace/comfort because you’re not quite used to its vibe yet.
With the lack of sleep and these lockdowns taking a toll on my overall fitness, I decided to do 2 moderate-rated hikes as a warm-up.
Parc d’environnement naturel de Sutton (Day 1)
Round Top and Lake Spruce Loop
Just a note: you don’t have to print your tickets if you get them in advance. I thought I had to but just make sure you can access it offline on your phone (there’s reception there but the data is finicky even though you have full bars). When you get to the entrance (where there’s access to all of the trails from that point), you show your ticket then they give you a pass that you have to either tie on your stuff or your clothing. Park rangers checked it on me a couple times.
I printed my tickets because I thought it was like Banff where you have to print it and place it on your dashboard… but that info wasn’t on the receipt nor tickets so I didn’t know. I ended up grabbing a Sharpie and a random piece of paper where I wrote all the details of my Banff pass which I placed on the dashboard in hopes that it was enough for me not to get a violation note.
Anyway, it was -20°C/-4°F that day. I wasn’t really that worried. I hiked up in Banff at that temperature before. It’s doable for sure but it isn’t without its challenges apart from the trail itself. In that weather, you can get frostbite in less than a minute of bare exposure. I kept pulling and pushing down my neck scarf because my cheeks were starting to hurt but if it’s up all the time then it’s just mucus wet, moist, and gross.
I was dehydrated too. It was just so cold that I didn’t want to take my hands out of my gloves. The gloves take away so much of your dexterity but maybe I just needed to get used to them because the next day, I was able to (very slowly and clumsily) take out my drinks/food from my backpack, undo the cap/open up the lids with my gloves on.
It was so cold that I was wearing my goggles not just to protect my eyes from snow blindness but also from the cold. Yes, I felt my eyeballs getting cold especially from when the winds blew directly on my face.
And no, my nose wasn’t colder because I had a septum piercing (people were asking). I was pretty surprised myself as I anticipated that would suck but it didn’t. If you’ve got piercings though and you get cold (happens to some), I would suggest getting plastic or acrylic retainers.
I don’t know much about goggles but there are varying degrees of sun protection, as I learned. I just got one with minimal protection since I’m not skiing or snowboarding or anything.
The key to staying warm is to keep moving. It wasn’t a problem during the ascents. Mind your cardio.
About halfway up, the irritations started kicking in, “Why am I doing this again? I’m fucking exhausted! I want soup! I hate my life!” 🤬
I’m not a mountaineer myself but I have a couple of friends who are (very technical, more hardcore terrains, much higher elevations, at least a couple days) and they understand the struggles along with common misconceptions. It’s fun but it’s not all unicorn farts. Everything has a price including this one. It is very difficult to explain when you’re not in love with it to the point where you invest so much of your efforts, time, and money.
Someone mentioned to me that when you’re out in the woods, especially when alone, everything comes out: your joys, fears, anger, your denials… but after finishing an intense hike that comes with inner and outer turmoil, sometimes it feels like a soul cleansing. I always feel emotionally lighter after an intense hike.
I’m veering off a bit but one of my more prevailing thoughts during my trip was about Ramadan. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims fast (no eating/drinking after the sunrise and before the sunset). I’ve always thought it was more of a religious thing but after being good friends with a couple Muslims, I was informed that they do it more to teach themselves to appreciate the value of what they have. In a sense, to empathize with millions of people all over the world who have to go through great lengths and/or struggle for food and water… to remind them of our privilege and, despite striving for better, to not forget to be thankful for what they have.
The discomfort of the cold makes me appreciate the warmth of my bed more. I’m able to enjoy the cold weather because I’m privileged enough to have that security. Some people don’t (sidenote: if you live in Toronto, you can call “311” if you see homeless people out in the cold and a team will be dispatched to assist).
Along the way, we come into struggles and moments when we forget about the initial spark that inspired us to do it, to begin with. We tend to pacify “negative” emotions but, unless it’s a reaction that was prompted by something inaccurate or incomplete information (in which case we should clarify if it’s detrimental) or directly related to a fact which we can either change or solve, I don’t believe in it. There’s plenty things in this world we can’t change and naturally, we may initially react. It’s very human to do so. One of the many lessons I’m reminded of when I do these things is that we need to monitor and accept these sensations, thoughts, and emotions. We need to acknowledge its presence and, if it doesn’t serve a productive purpose (like some fear can be good so we can take precautions just as a little bit of anxiety is good fuel for get-shit-done mode): let it pass through our bodies, minds, hearts then let it go. Otherwise, it’s just excess baggage stuffed by superficial reassurances and oppression. We all have baggage because it comes with the package of Life but throughout our journeys, we load and unload as our paths would have it. This is why I think it’s important to make time for mindfulness when we can.
It’s good to strive to be a better person but how do we do that when we deny ourselves our own humanity? Don’t silence your own heart for fear of the unknown that lies deep within yourself.
Sometimes meditation and therapy come in the form of mountains, the woods, and old man winter
This trail is mostly challenging due to non-stop ascents. The terrain isn’t rugged or anything but the peak itself was rather difficult (and fun!) to get to.
This part was a bunch of steep stairs that were covered in snow and ice. I can’t imagine being able to do this without crampons (I can’t stress this enough for deep winter hikes: get the spiked ones, not the studded ones). The walking sticks really helped. The trails out here are doable without it for the most part but walking sticks turn this whole thing from a lower-body workout to a full-body workout. Without it, your legs do most of the work (if you’re not climbing which I didn’t have to do here). With the sticks, you can use your arms to help propel yourself up so your upper body gets a workout too… in case you care about these things like I do.
When you arrive though, you tend to forget about the troubles of what it took to get there.
The temperature was -20°C/-4°F but once you get to around 100m/325ft+ elevation, you start to feel the temperature gradually drop so I didn’t stay up for too long. I just drank some water and ate a protein bar which felt more like hard candy due to the cold.
Much of this is about the journey apart from the goal. Don’t take it against yourself if you can’t reach the peak either. Life happens. Lessons are learned. Now you know. Now you’re wiser. Enjoy the ride.
Having said that, descending from steep slopes where you can slide is fun fun fun! 😊
I got water-resistant pants this time. It’s the bomb. It kept me warm without a thermal under the same temperature in the city. I loved it and I’m glad I finally got one (I was just in thermals and jeans last time).
Everyone had trouble getting down. You can’t see it from the video but some rocks, which were part of the stairs, were just covered with treacherous black ice.
After this, everything was pretty much a breeze (all puns intended). Descending is usually more challenging due to the whole balance thing but this was easy, in my opinion. The only part that sucked was that all the mucus that kept flowing from my nose to my neck scarf was now frozen. I was seriously getting worried about my cheeks which were starting to hurt about a quarter way down (30-45 minutes).
I finished this trail around noon so I had time for one more. I really wanted some soup though so I went to town (Sutton, super cute – again, no photos, unfortunately. I was very hike-centric).
It’s funny ’cause I would hike out in the mountains in extreme weather but once I got to town, I was looking for parking right across the restaurant because I didn’t want to walk more than 1 minute in the cold. Go figure.
My neck scarf was 100% cotton which I got for my barely-equipped trip last year (still not bad for keeping you warm) was now wet and iced up, I popped by Bonnetier to get a new one.
“I’m looking for a neck scarf.”
“How about this one?” The salesperson handed me a black one. I felt it up with my hands.
“Yeah, that looks like it would be good.”
She then walks around the store and grabs a couple more. We feel the fabric with our fingers and hands.
“I don’t think these would be enough”, she said.
“Yeah, I agree. I think the very first one you showed me is best.”
“It’s Merino Wool.”
“Oh. That one for sure then.”
I used to diss Merino Wool as it’s costly and I didn’t really feel the difference. Granted, I’ve never used it in extremely cold weather hiking. I initially didn’t think it warranted any counts of investment on my behalf but since so many people swear by it, I decided to get a base layer to test it out (not much of an advantage for me when I’m in the city and/or just lounging around). I brought my moisture-wicking Merino Wool (250 fabric weight) base layer and my polyester/cotton blend ones.
The latter is actually just as warm but they weren’t moisture-wicking and oh man did I feel the difference… but I didn’t know better until Day 2 since I didn’t wear it on this day. I did feel significantly colder in comparison to when I started though the temperature didn’t drop. Whereas Merino Wool did wick away my sweat and therefore, I stayed warm. Sometimes different settings equals different results especially if it’s of a technical/mechanical nature.
For reference, it’s good to have moisture-wicking fabric especially if you’re doing activities in cold weather. When you’re hot, you sweat. When you’re not moving and/or you start to cool down and the sweat doesn’t leave your body, the sweat cools then you get colder. I knew all this in theory but I still wanted to test out the difference for myself.
Next time around if I go hiking in -20°C/-4°F weather, I would double-tuque too. If you shave your head or you’re balding or something, I would suggest you do the same. Once I got to the peak, my shaved head was not very warm anymore. My discontinued tuque was impressive though. I didn’t start feeling cold up until I reached the peak and that was definitely colder than when I initially started off.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to double glove too. Maybe have the thinner gloves with screen touch then top it off with the winter heavy-duty ones. Under normal conditions, my hand warmers are so warm to the point where it feels like it’s burning but when it’s this cold, my fingers were still starting to get frostbite with the heavy-duty gloves on.
I drove back to the entrance of the park. I had to put my car heater on full blast otherwise the anti-freeze fluid would just freeze on my windshield.
L’Arrault, Vieux Chemin and Descent of Lake Vogel
After I finished my soup and put on my new warm 🥰 neck scarf, I headed back to PENS for my next trail. I picked a shorter one with less elevation. The sun sets around 17:00 and it starts to get dark around 16:00. Right around when it starts to get dark, the temperatures drop too… and I didn’t want to inadvertently hike out at night again.
I finished this one around 16:30. It was significantly colder at this point. I wasn’t wearing the moisture-wicking fabric. I was cold AF.
I drove back to the town where I was staying. I picked up an insulated bottle (nope, didn’t have them, “None of them have a flip-lock lid. It’ll be too much of a hassle to open up in the cold. I’ll be fine. I didn’t have problems last time.”) because throughout the entire time I was hiking, I kept wishing I had a warm drink.
Mont Orford via Sentier du Ruisseau des Chênes (Day 2)
It was warmer the next day (-15°C/5°F) which was perfect for this trail.
I was still pretty tired from the day before so I just kinda stayed in bed for a few hours and stretched.
This trail was supposedly going to take about 5 hours so I had time. I usually add 30 minutes to an hour padding for breaks and the unknown though. I had never done this trail before so I didn’t know what to expect and how I’m going to interact with it. I read up on it but knowing things, in theory, can only go so far. And theory is concluded by other people and their experiences. Unless it’s cold, hard facts, I’m sure my truths will overlap with theirs but I like to discover my own just as I would encourage everyone to do the same. It’s good to belong or take part in communities without losing your individuality in this sense.
I wore my Merino Wool, moisture-wicking base thermal then. I was super excited to test as to whether or not this feature actually made a difference.
I didn’t have an appetite and since I was just doing the one trail, I figured I could afford to go for a couple hours on an empty stomach… yeah I fucked up there as I found out later lol. I thought I was just out of shape and I did lose a lot of my fitness due to facilities closing with all these lockdowns but no, as I found out the next day, I just didn’t fuel well enough.
Towards the latter part of the trail was a cross-country skiing/snowshoeing trail. I came across groups of people who were essentially cross-country skiing their way up and then skiing down. There was one last very steep ascent. I saw a woman struggling her way up. WTF? “I’m getting tired just looking at you!” I yelled out. It looked insane.
Judging from this graph, that incline was probably about 60° to 70° which is, for me, apparently actually (as I found out) not that bad… but skiing up? Fuck that shit.
The lady kept slipping down and hey man if you can do this: hats off to you but… damn.
I was glad I had my walking sticks. It was doable without it but very difficult, especially with ice and snow. I imagine without the snow, I would’ve had to use my hands and climb up.
This was the third significantly steep incline in this trail. There was another one before it that was probably about just a little less than a quarter of a km (.155 miles) that was nothing but rocks, ice, and snow. I had a lot of fun interacting with it on my way up (not sarcasm).
As I figured my way up, I simultaneously thought about how sucky it would be to get down from. “Shh. Focus on your ascent,” I thought to myself. I came across several viewpoints and debated on backing out after the third one. I was just so tired (and lacking in food in my system)… but every time the thought of turning back came, I look at how far I’ve come and thought, “You’ve gone this far. Don’t stop now.”
It was the exact same thought I had when I came across the part of the trail that was a ski/snowboarding area. I did read a good review that mentioned the ski trail bit but I just really didn’t want to turn back. When you set out to do something, turning back can be heartbreaking. Defeat is probably one of the more difficult losses to accept, as a human being… so I ascended on the side of the ski/snowboard trail. Along the way, a skier and a snowboarder almost hit me. Nearing the peak, I decided that I was going to take the lift down because this was just too much of a hassle and a hazard. It was a Sunday too so there were relatively a lot of people.
I approached the operator when I got to the top, “Can I take the lift down?”
“Do you have a ski pass?”
“Well, where I can buy it?”
“At Customer Services down there.”
“…how am I supposed to go and buy it there to take a ride from here?”
“Can I buy it here? Can I just pay you?”
Then he just left me and went back into his quarters.
“Fuck. I guess I’m hiking down.” I thought. I went to a viewpoint area and had a snack. There was a huge part of me that was not accepting the fact that I have to hike down. It just felt too dangerous. Then I saw several safety folks who were wearing a red jackets with a white cross on them. I approached one of the guys, “Hi. I hiked up here and this was part of the trail but I think this part was meant for summer.” I then showed him my map. “Can I take the ski lift down? I don’t have a ticket but I’ll buy one when I get down there.”
“Oh, okay. Stay here.” He then went to speak to the operator then he came back to me, “Okay. We’re going to trust you, okay? You have to buy a ski ticket in Customer Services once you get down there. We’re letting you ride because we can’t let you kill people by going down that way again.”
“You have to pay, okay?”
“Yes! Of course. I will.”
What a relief.
I went to Customer Services once I got down but they essentially just let it go, “Oh don’t worry about it. Nobody takes the lift down. Thank you for your honesty.”
I still really wanted to finish the trail though so I debated on going back the next day but I wasn’t sure if I’d be too exhausted. I mean, I was planning on just doing a quick and easy hike before I headed back home.
Mont Orford via Sentier du Ruisseau des Chênes (Take 2, Day 3)
I woke up the next morning, determined. I had a good amount of sleep. I packed my stuff and decided to eat a proper breakfast… and that proper meal made all the difference.
I just loved this trail.
It had such a variety of terrains, diverse landscapes, frozen falls, and visual/tactile textures. In some areas, I had to lean on tree trunks, grab onto branches, maneuver way around iced rocks, and I had several chances to slide down at some points 🥰
I used my iPhone 11 for everything by the way. As I’ve mentioned in one of the videos, I didn’t have a sports cam. I would’ve brought my sports cam but that went kaput in Calgary when hiked at -20°C/-4°F. I’ve never had electronics break on me due to natural conditions (except for that one time underwater). I knew extreme weather can cause it to malfunction but my mentality is, “If I, a human, can live through this then so can that.”
Wrong. Don’t leave your phone under the sun either. Sheesh.
I got a little insulator bag (from the dollar store) for my electronics this time around (solar power charger, cables, phone, portable speaker) but I just never got around to replacing the sports cam. I’d get the GoPro but the fact that its underwater housing can only withstand pressure up to 20m/65ft is a turn-off for me. I don’t dive all that often but I just want that one camera when I’m hiking and/or doing other things on land and for underwater shots. I haven’t looked into it yet but when I do, I’m sure I’ll probably write about it too.
My media does not do these places any justice… but at the same time, I can’t imagine lugging around a frickin’ DSLR when you’re trying to climb and figure your way up & down and then maneuvering the settings when your fingers are numb. In this weather (-10°C to -15°C/14°F to 5°F) I can see how it’s doable. But any colder than that and it’s just… ah I don’t know. We’ll see. I mean just several years ago, I was the type who would barely ever wanna go out when it’s cold, and yet here I am loving it 🤷🏽♀️
I turned back once I came to the skiing/snowboard part but I essentially finished it for about half the time compared to the day before even with my more frequent hydrating and snack breaks. I was pretty surprised myself. It was -10°C/14°F. I still felt the temperature drop as I ascended but I think it’s safe to say that this temperature is the sweet spot for me. I was sweating profusely underneath all my layers. I know it’s going well when I get the urge to take off my layers in this weather because I was warming up so much. I even took my tuque off at some points because of how much I’ve warmed up.
In case you want to take up winter hiking, I would suggest starting around this temperature. It has other downsides though… like, because it’s not as crazy cold, the snow and ice were starting to melt. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on their mood. When the ice starts melting, you can safely plant your walking sticks and/or shoes with crampons(!) and have more solid footing OR the ice is melting and therefore you’re left with nothing but very slippery black ice right by steep ledges. If you like the thrill of that though, then you will be excited and scared just as I was. This trail had a mix of that so when I was dealing with steep inclines, I had to keep poking around for solid footing. Parts of the trail still had snow up to my knees. It wasn’t quite as crazy as Banff where I got stuck on snow that was thigh high (wrong estimation on the poking and one of my legs just got buried and it took me a good minute to get myself out. I was lucky there was ground underneath as it was on the trail but this can be very perilous if the snow is just hanging by the side of a ledge as you could fall straight down so be careful)
Sometimes hiking mountains feels like getting to know a person very closely and intimately. You interact with the layers of soil, its different landscapes, viewpoints, flat areas, steep areas, thickly wooded areas, plain grounds, bodies of water, wildlife that inhabit it… and in turn, you get to know yourself better… much like when we interact with other people from different walks of life: we get to know and explore different parts of ourselves because we’re given new perspectives.
It’s funny how worried I was about the descent but it was actually not that bad. There were even some of those inclines where I could slide down, so I did. I used my elbows to dig down the snow to slow me down when I was going the wrong way. You can pivot your body around too. I don’t snowboard nor ski but I imagine if you do, you must know this. If you’ve ever gone caving, you’ll know this too. This is why I love these activities; it’s very tactile and physically interactive with the environment. I tried to capture it but I kept failing (pressed the record twice on the first attempt, dropped my phone which slid all the way down on the second attempt #BrainFarts).
“Do you have good crampons?” A lady asked me.
“I saw people doing that too. Maybe they didn’t have the proper equipment.”
“Oh. Yeah, I have the proper equipment but I slide because… it’s fun.”
“Fun is good. Have fun!”
“I am having fun!” 😊
On my way down, I came across several people. Some were panting and resting and frowning due to exhaustion much like myself when I started. “I’m trying to pace myself but whew!” said one woman.
“Oh yeah, no it’s not easy. It’s worth it though. Goodluck!”
“Thank you! Have a nice day!”
Finishing the trail felt good. I wish Ontario had mountains but at least now I know if I need a quick fix, I could just hop on over next door.